The 'Tones return with after a six-year break, this time with original harmonicist Howard Levy back in the fold.
Rocket Science, the first album of new music from Béla Fleck and the Flecktones in six years, opens with a familiar banjo gambol from Fleck, which soon makes room for something unheard in a Flecktones song since 1992: Howard Levy’s harmonica. The song is “Gravity Lane”, and Levy blows a prosaic harp figure over Fleck’s mellow theme until bass-maestro Victor Wooten and mad-scientist/percussionist Roy “Futureman” Wooten jump in and slowly build the song into the tumbling rhythms and improvisations that mark the Flecktones’ signature sound. Any attempt to categorize that sound forces you into clumsy descriptions like “avant-garde jazz-funk-grass”, but it’s safe to say that the Flecktones sound has been revitalized impressively on Rocket Science.
Many fans discovered Béla Fleck and the Flecktones in the mid-‘90s, after Levy had already left the band, at which point the Flecktones were touring and performing as a trio. At that point, they were attracting a lot of attention from the jam-grass community, which lumped them in with improv-minded progressive newgrass bands like Leftover Salmon and Sting Cheese Incident. Many of those fans missed the Howard Levy years altogether. Levy, also an extraordinary pianist, was a member of the Flecktones for the band’s first three albums, from 1990 to 1992, so a return to the “Original Flecktones”, as this year’s tour is being billed, caught some by surprise.
What opened the door for Levy’s return was the departure of saxophonist Jeff Coffin, who joined the Dave Matthews Band after the death of LeRoi Moore in 2008. As much as Coffin contributed to the Flecktones over the years, which is plenty, the band resounds with freshness by reuniting with Levy, and many of the new album’s brightest spots come courtesy of Levy’s instrumental and compositional contributions. It goes without saying that any Flecktones recording is packed with spellbinding instrumental skill, but the musical ideas on Rocket Science are more satisfying, often more melodic, and more graceful in the amalgamation of styles than on any Flecktones album in a long while.
Of course, the number of musical ideas the ‘Tones cram onto any one album (or on any one song) has been as much a knock against them as it’s been a virtue. Through the propulsion of such mind-boggling talent, the band has had, on occasion, a tendency to let their musical imaginations run far enough that the listener ends up feeling mauled by all of it. It’s unfair to label Bela & Co. as a jam band, implying that their bread and butter is endless noodling — they are much more gifted as musicians and meticulous as composers than that — but the Flecktones’ tendency to indulge themselves in their every musical whim hasn’t always translated into great records, as their 2003 triple-album of excess, Little Worlds, indicates.
Rocket Science certainly doesn’t eliminate the kind of musical adventurousness that they do so well (something their fans count on), but the album finds a suitable balance between digression and restraint. Part of that success is due to the record’s collaborative writing process between Fleck and Levy, which resulted in some of the record’s finest moments, like the suave “Joyful Spring” -- featuring exchanges of piano, bass, and banjo on a mellow theme -- and the blistering showstopper “Life in Eleven”.
As its title hints, “Life in Eleven” is played in complex time signatures, 11/16 and 11/8, so it’ll be fun to watch the festival hippies try to dance to it as the band gets Bulgarian on their asses. Levy honks with obsessive fury here, trading rambunctious solos with Fleck and Wooten, while Futureman keeps time with razor-sharp acumen. There’s a clever shift into a middle passage, a more standard jazz-funk vamp, which then succumbs to Levy’s heart-stopping piano rampage before reaching a typical Flecktones wrap-up crescendo. This is all exciting stuff, although it’s also the kind of skronky modernistic clatter that won’t be for everyone.
Futureman contributes the solo composition “The Secret Drawer”, allowing us to hear the advancements made to his Drumitar. Twenty years on, the device is still a marvel, and on Rocket Science, Futureman plays it with catalytic precocity, alternating tricky syncopations and guiding the band through endless rhythmic changeups. His brother Victor, for his part, backs off of the myriad bass effects for which he’s been known, opting instead for a fat, sensuous, unadulterated tone, one that contributes the album’s warm integrity and helps establish a template in which each player is subordinate to the ensemble.
Despite the collaborative nature of Rocket Science, most of the songs remain Fleck’s, like the loose articulation of “Storm Warning”, a live mainstay from his trio concerts with Stanley Clarke and Jean-Luc Ponty. Here, Levy’s harmonica maintains the same theme throughout while the others exchange discursive phrases throughout the chorus, creating tension and release. Fleck switches to a Deering Crossfire electric banjo here, which he also uses on the relatively straightforward “Prickly Pear”, as he trades riffs with Levy, this time his harp coughing through thick distortion. Later, Fleck plays a prototype ten-string banjo on “Joyful Spring”, reminding us again that when it comes to the banjo, the history of the instrument is divided into pre-Béla and post-Béla.
“Falani”, the album’s penultimate track, is an example of the album’s focused structural thesis. The bridge allows Wooten to lay down some expressive phrases but mostly Fleck and Levy exchange subtle variations on the theme, sometimes in unison, sometimes breaking out in the chorus on self-assured solos. “Bottle Rocket” is the album-closing knockout, opening with Wooten’s popping bass figure, bringing to mind classic Flecktone fare like “Stomping Grounds”. Levy trades off on the harmonica and piano, expanding the sonic palette; the band toggles between bop-style digressions and the head’s evocative eight-note riff. Toward the end, Béla takes over, playing with incredible velocity, amazing in the coherence of his thought. It’s a fitting summary to an album of stirring ingenuity from musicians rediscovering each other and having tremendous fun doing so.